The Subway Series Prequel

The Polo Grounds factored into many Subway Series games. (via Library of Congress)

The Polo Grounds factored into many Subway Series games. (via Library of Congress)

As is the case with most years, 1889 had its share of memorable events: the Johnstown Flood, the Oklahoma land rush, the inauguration of Benjamin Harrison, and the admission of four states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington) to the union – the largest cluster to gain admittance since the 13 original states.

Every year, of course, there are events that seem relatively inconsequential at the time but gain importance in retrospect. In 1889, for example, the Coca-Cola Company was incorporated, The Wall Street Journal began publication, the first jukebox was manufactured, and the first Subway Series was played.

Well, sort of.

According to official baseball history, the first Subway Series was in 1921 when the Giants squared off against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds. That is certainly true, but before the New York subway system was built, there was another crosstown postseason clash in 1889. In good conscience, you couldn’t call it a subway series because there were no subways in 1889, the year the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (n/k/a Dodgers) took on the New York Giants.

At first blush, this might sound wrong. After all, the Dodgers and Giants are both in the National League, right? Their renowned 1951 meeting after the end of the regularly scheduled season was technically an extension of the season, and not part of the postseason. So how could the two franchises meet in a postseason series in 1889 – or any other year, for that matter?

The Giants were then in their seventh season in the National League. A previous team, the New York Mutuals, lasted less than one season (1876), the NL’s inaugural year. Curiously, the team played its home games in Brooklyn, since it was owned by a Brooklyn businessman named Bill Cammeyer, who also managed the team. Long before Arte Moreno came up the cumbersome moniker of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Cammeyer could have called his team the New York Mutuals of Brooklyn.

Like the Giants, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms were also in their seventh season, but they were in the American Association, not the National League. Transplanted from Trenton, they were born the Brooklyn Grays of the minor league Inter-State Association of Professional Baseball Clubs; after their first season, they moved to the American Association, which began playing a postseason “championship” series with the NL champs that same year. The nickname Bridegrooms cropped up in 1888, thanks to six of the players getting married in the off-season.

This first “subway” series was also unique in that it was the only one in which Brooklyn was a separate city. Brooklyn and New York did not consolidate until 1898, though the Brooklyn Bridge had joined Manhattan Island with Brooklyn in 1883, so I guess they could have called the 1889 match-up the Bridge Series.

Before then, a New York-Brooklyn series would have been a Ferry Series. Walt Whitman, a big baseball fan, would doubtless have enjoyed that, as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is one of his best-known poems. He was 70 years old, living in Camden, N.J., and in poor health in 1889, but he was probably aware of the Brooklyn-New York match-up.

Neither Brooklyn nor New York was a shoo-in for the 1889 pennant. The Giants finished just one game ahead of the Boston Beaneaters, the only team that had defeated them in the season series (8-6). Likewise, Brooklyn came out two games ahead of the St. Louis Browns, the only team with a winning record (11-8) against them, and something of a dynasty at that point in American Association history.

What is particularly curious about the standings in both leagues is the disparity in the number of games played. Today if you add up wins and losses, you almost always come up with 162 games for all teams. Occasionally, there may be a rainout that slips through the cracks if it doesn’t have any bearing on the standings and can’t be rescheduled without undue inconvenience.

But in finishing one game ahead of the Beaneaters, the Giants had won the same number of games. Boston had played two more games and lost them. One might think the two games should have been made up to give the Beaneaters a chance to tie the Giants, but no.

In truth, it is difficult to determine just how many games were originally scheduled or if any team played a full schedule. In the National League, the number of games played varied from a maximum of 134 (Indianapolis) to a minimum of 124 (Washington); in the American Association the numbers varied from 133 (the Philadelphia A’s) to 138 (Columbus and Louisville).

The Bridegrooms started the season with a 3-7 April but righted the ship in May (18-7) and never looked back. That season, 353,690 fans attended Bridegrooms games. A May 30 double-header against the Browns attracted 8,462 fans, the largest crowd to that point in baseball history – and that’s without counting the standing-room only folks.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The Bridegrooms faced one major logistical challenge along the way. Their Park Slope ballpark, Washington Park, burned down on May 19, but a new park with the same name was ready a month later. Both parks were named after George Washington, who was the commander of American troops at the Battle of Long Island, which took place nearby on Aug. 27, 1776. In fact, the Gowanus House that served as Washington’s headquarters was in use by the Bridegrooms more than a hundred years later.

The Giants finished the season with a rush, going 17-4 in September and 4-1 in October. They also had a major ballpark challenge: they didn’t have one till July 8, when they opened the second incarnation of the Polo Grounds at 155th Street in Harlem on July 8 with a 7-5 victory over Pittsburgh. The first Polo Grounds fell to eminent domain in 1888, so the Giants opened the 1889 season at Oakland Park in Jersey City, and then moved on to the St. George Cricket Grounds on Staten Island. That location was adjacent to the current minor league ballpark that houses the Staten Island Yankees.

Unlike the Bridegrooms, the Giants were a team of renown. The previous season, they had won the NL pennant and gone on to defeat the St. Louis Browns in the “world championship” series. Their roster was dotted with names that are familiar even today: first baseman Roger Connor, catcher Buck Ewing, pitchers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch, outfielder Jim O’Rourke and shortstop John Montgomery Ward – all six enshrined in the Hall of Fame. A seventh player, pitcher Hank O’Day, is also in Cooperstown, but primarily due to his lengthy career as an umpire.

On the leader board, Roger Connor led the league in RBIs (130) and slugging (.528). Setting the table for him was outfielder Mike Tiernan, who led the league in walks (96) and runs (147).

The Brooklyn team had less name recognition, but no shortage of colorful names: Hub Collins, Germany Smith, Darby O’Brien, Pop Corkhill, Oyster Burns and Adonis Terry. Pitcher Bob Carruthers had a forgettable name, but he led the league in wins (40), shutouts (seven), and winning percentage (.784). He was hardly a one-year wonder, as his total of 175 wins (in six seasons) was the second highest number of victories in the ten-year run of the American Association.

Brooklyn led the league in runs scored (995). Brooklyn batters led the league in bases on balls (550), while Brooklyn pitchers allowed the fewest walks (400). Adding three shutouts to the seven posted by Carruthers, the pitching staff led the league in shutouts.

As a team, the Giants led the league in walks (538), batting average (.282), on- base percentage (.360), runs (935), slugging (.393) and triples (77). The pitching staff struck out 558 while allowing just 1,073 hits, best in show in both categories.

Despite the Giants’ star power, their attendance was only 201,989, thanks to the remoteness of their “home” fields during the first half of the season. Yet in the postseason, it appeared that the odds greatly favored the Giants.

Since the Bridegrooms did not play their final regular season game till Oct. 14, the postseason got a late start. Three days later, Giants owner John B. Day and Bridegrooms owner Charles H. Byrne met to determine how the contest for the Dauvray Cup (named in honor of actress Helen Dauvray, wife of John Montgomery Ward) would be scheduled. They decided that the format would be a best-of-11. In other words, the first team to win six games would win the cup.

The first game was played at the Polo Grounds the next day with Brooklyn on top by a 12-10 score. The following day the Giants squared the series with a 6-2 victory at Brooklyn. Afterwards, weather problems arose, cutting into attendance for the remaining games.

Brooklyn likely threw a scare into the Giants by winning two abbreviated games, one in New York (8-7 in eight innings) and one in Brooklyn (10-7 in six innings).

Brooklyn fans were likely elated by being up three games to 0ne, but from that point on, it was all Giants. The series concluded on Oct. 29, and the Giants won it in nine games.

But if the Bridegrooms were denied their upset, they had made an impression on the National League, so much so that they were invited to join the NL for the 1890 season. This was an invitation they could not refuse, as the NL was largely viewed as superior to the AA, both in terms of talent and organization.

The league’s faith in the franchise was borne out immediately, as Brooklyn won the NL pennant in 1890, thus becoming the only team ever to win consecutive pennants in two different leagues. The results were better in the postseason, when the Bridegrooms met the American Association’s Louisville Colonels, who had staged a remarkable turnaround (the year before they had finished last with a 27-111 record). Brooklyn and Louisville played seven games with the series ending in a 3-3-1 tie. Obviously, determining a champion was not a priority that year.

Fortune was not so kind to the Giants in 1890. They fell below .500 (63-68), finishing in fifth place. Their all-star roster had been raided by the Players League, a one-season, eight-team league founded by former Giant John Montgomery Ward. The Giants’ attendance plummeted to 69,607, less than 1,000 per game.

The newly-established league added a new team (the Wonders) in Brooklyn and in New York. Since the Brooklyn Gladiators had replaced the Bridegrooms in the American Association, there were now three teams in Brooklyn and two in New York!

The Giants’ situation was particularly bizarre, as the new team in the Players League called itself the Giants and built a ballpark right next to the Polo Grounds. (You can almost hear the Twilight Zone theme playing in the background.)

Obviously, five teams in the New York area (when the population was much less than today) was way too many, but the situation only lasted one year. The Players League went bust and in 1891, the National League and American Association were the only two leagues left.

The American Association, however, had been fatally wounded by the excess competition. The league bit the dust after the 1891 season, but the strongest franchises were absorbed into the NL. From that point on, New York was a one-league, two-team town until 1903 when the New York Highlanders (formerly the Baltimore Orioles) of the American League arrived.

The Giants had taken over the abandoned Players League ballpark next door and the Polo Grounds name was transferred to it. This was the footprint of the ballpark that played such a large role in 20th century baseball, from John McGraw’s Giants to Casey Stengel’s Mets.

The Polo Grounds figured in six of the 14 Subway Series but it was history after the 1963 season. In fact, all the ballparks that have housed Subway Series games are gone. In that respect, the 1889 series has something in common with all the series that followed.

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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9 years ago

Great article. Thank you so much for writing and sharing it.

9 years ago
Reply to  Carl


Paul G.
9 years ago

From what I understand, at the time Brooklyn was much more understanding of things like Sunday baseball which is probably why the original New York team was in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan. After the New York team failed the Hartford team moved to Brooklyn for 1877, where they failed as well. It boggles that NYC was not a viable market.

As an addendum to the 1890 NYC overpopulation, it was too much for 1890. The Brooklyn team in the AA didn’t finish out the season and was replaced by Baltimore, which had failed after the prior season and then came back. Not the most stable time in baseball operations for sure.

The Players League insurgency was probably one of the reasons why Louisville managed to win the pennant in 1890. The other was the AA losing Brooklyn and Cincinnati to the NL and replacing them with franchises in huge metros like Rochester, Toledo, and Syracuse. Here’s Louisville’s records 1889-1891. One of these things is not like the others:

1889: 27-111 (last)
1890: 88-44 (first)
1891: 54-83 (eighth)

Cliff Blau
9 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

The National League didn’t have Sunday games. The Mutuals had to play in Brooklyn because there was no baseball park in New York City.

Paul G.
9 years ago
Reply to  Cliff Blau

True enough. I checked their schedule and no Sunday games. However, Cincinnati was playing Sunday baseball from the start and it would not be banned in the NL until later. Playing in Brooklyn as opposed to Manhattan would become an issue later on due to blue laws. When Brooklyn was incorporated into NYC proper, it was a gray area if Sunday baseball was allowed or not.

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia Union Grounds was the first enclosed park and thus the first park that could charge admission. I suspect a stadium could be built in Manhattan if so desired; the first Polo Grounds was converted for baseball in 1880 and may have existed before then (records unclear).

J. Fox
9 years ago

Note that since the Giants played home games for a while in Staten Island, then all 5 boroughs have had major League teams/stadiums at 1 time or another. Even nearby Hudson County in New Jersey had some Brooklyn Dodger home contests in 1956 at Roosevelt Stadium.

Cliff Blau
9 years ago

You couldn’t fairly call it a crosstown series, either, since as you note, NY and Brooklyn were separate cities. You could call it a trolley series, though.

The Mutuals were not called the New York Mutuals. They were the Mutual Baseball Club of New York.

It is not difficult to determine the number of scheduled games for any season. Retrosheet’s Web site has the schedules:

The Boston Club won consecutive pennants in the Players League in 1890 and the American Association in 1891.

The Yankees, apparently, had no connection with the Baltimore club, but were created from scratch in 1903.

Good article.

Paul Blocklyn
9 years ago

Herman Melville, like his contemporary Walt Whitman, appears to have been a baseball fan (or at least to have taken an interest in the game). The contributions of both these American Renaissance writers are detailed in an interesting post from MLB historian John Thorn’s blog. A link to the post appears below.

Ray Miller
9 years ago

To echo Cliff Blau, great article! (Mr. Blau is mistaken, however, to discount the evolutionary connections between the first AL Baltimore Orioles and the NY Yankees, which, I believe, have been fairly well documented [even if this is not as straightforward as the franchise shifts of the 1950s and beyond … ].) The subject of this article is part of a great trivia question that occurred to me a while back: Three pairs of teams that now play in the same division once met in a post-season “World’s Championship” series: Which are they? Answer: the Dodgers and Giants (as Frank Jackson has so eloquently documented here); the Cubs and the Cardinals (the St. Louis Browns Frank mentions here moved to the NL in the merger of 1892 and eventually became the Cardinals; meanwhile, they faced the ancestors of the Cubbies in the NL vs. AA series of 1885 and ’86); and, the Cards and the Brewers, who played the 1982 World Series back when Milwaukee was in the AL.

Ray Miller
9 years ago

Let me echo Mr. Blau and others: Great, great article! (Cliff is mistaken, however, to discount the evolutionary connections between the first AL Orioles and the NY Yankees, which have been well documented.) Frank Jackson’s article is part of the answer to a great trivia question: Which three pairs of current divisional rivals once met in a post-season “world championship” series? Answer: the Dodgers and Giants, as Frank has so eloquently documented here; the Cubs and Cardinals (the AA St. Louis Browns Frank mentions here moved to the NL as part of the 1892 merger and eventually became the Cardinals; meanwhile, they met the ancestor of the Cubbies in the AA-vs.-NL series of 1885 and ’86); and, the Cards and Brewers, who played each other in the 1982 World Series when Milwaukee was part of the AL.